That's How Rumors Get Started
“I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor,” sings Margo Price, about midway through her third studio LP. “I could be there again, baby, that’s for sure.” What might sound like false modesty in the hands of lesser songwriters registers as 100 percent bullshit-free coming from Price, whose own hardscrabble roots are about as perfect a country music origin story as anyone could ask for. Maybe you remember it— how she struggled for years to break through, how she lost her son, how she pawned her wedding ring for one last-ditch effort to make the classic country album of her dreams. She accomplished it with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and since then has earned Grammy nominations, sold out the Ryman, and palled around with legends like Willie Nelson and the late John Prine. But you never for one minute think she’s forgotten what it took to get here; Price is a scrapper and a survivor who’s earned every good thing that’s come her way, and takes none of it for granted.
It’s no surprise, then, that That’s How Rumors Get Started is a prickly, pugilistic affair; nearly all of its songs fall somewhere on the spectrum between deadpan snark and outright antagonism against unnamed haters. “I’m getting tired of being your rectifier / I bet it’s hard to sleep in the bed of lies that you made,” she smirks on the opening title track; she could follow it with a ruthless “How does it feeeeeel?” sneer and no one would bat an eye.
And there are plenty more bars where that came from. “Letting Me Down” sizes up some deadbeat she used to love, and makes pretty clear she’s over it: “Aww, babe, just look around / You got a way of letting me down.” “Stone Me” casually deflates a would-be shit-talker: “You don’t know me / You don’t own me / Yeah, that’s no way to stone me.” When Price sings about romance, she usually portrays it as wreckage and ruin; consider a song called “What Happened to Our Love?,” which carries its premise right there in the title. (Perhaps it should be noted that Price co-wrote most of these songs with her husband and bandmate, Jeremy Ivey; no need to panic.)
Price has always had a knack for cantankerous lyrics, and counts at least a handful of classic one-liners to her name (“You wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass”), but Rumors raises the bar for her barbs and tough talk. A big part of that has to do with the sound of the record, crafted with the help of producer Sturgill Simpson, capturing some of the same cheerful sleeze of his own Sound & Fury.
The ten songs on Rumors are punchy and fat-free, borrowing equally from the cheerfully propulsive grooves of prime Fleetwood Mac and the heartland swagger of John Mellencamp. A few songs incorporate small gospel ensembles, recalling some of the vulgar pentecostalism of vintage Rolling Stones. “Heartless Mind” employs chintzy synths for an irresistible new-wave groove; it’s featherweight and fun. More than either of her previous albums, Rumors swings and sways with live-band chemistry; it feels designed to provide firepower to her live shows, dicey though that prospect might seem right now.
Of course, there are decent odds that Price will shed a few fans for this, by some metrics her least quote-unquote country album to date. But if that’s your reaction, you’re listening to Margo Price for all the wrong reasons: She’s an icon not because she fits into a box but because she is self-possessed and not especially eager for approval. (In the leadup to the album’s release, Price sat for a Los Angeles Times interview where she expressed her support for BLM and her commitment to wearing a mask in public, no matter how many fans she alienates; the article’s pullquote, “You can’t argue with stupid,” would make a decent alternate title for Rumors.) Following the majestic honky-tonk of her debut and the ragged roots of All American Made, the new record may seem almost like a deliberate provocation of the purists. And what’s not to love about that?